We expect to see such violence in the townships of South Africa, not the streets of Los Angeles. Yet the videotape of Rodney Glen King's beating is only slightly more disturbing than the official response of the law enforcement community, and what it says about urban law and order.
The police and the highway patrol say they observed King driving 115 mph in his Hyundai (yes, Hyundai) and pursued him. He eluded them for a while. But once King stopped and got out of his car, the police shot him with a stun gun. Then a group of officers kicked him and pummeled him with night sticks (at least 53 times, according to a Los Angeles Times count).
The eyewitness who videotaped the assault told reporters that King "was pretty much cooperative" before the officers started their attack. Other witnesses agreed. But King spent two days in a hospital and has suffered injuries that may never heal, including brain damage. King had served time for second-degree robbery and admitted he was speeding; he said he hoped to evade the police so that he wouldn't violate parole and lose his job as a construction worker. He's been released, not even charged with speeding.
One shining principle of liberal democracy is the rule of law—the belief that the same set of constraints applies to the rich and the poor, the mighty and the weak. Jefferson articulated this principle in the Declaration of Independence; George Mason and the Founders codified it in the Bill of Rights. It's one of our proudest traditions. Yet Los Angeles is far from lawful, and the stench of lawlessness goes directly to the first link in the chain of command.
Police Chief Daryl Gates charged three of the officers with felony assault; a grand jury indicted those three as well as the sergeant in charge. Gates called the incident an "aberration…in a well-disciplined department."
Not quite. Rodney King is black; the 15 officers who rounded him up are white. And LAPD officers have participated in a perceptible pattern of violence against racial minorities. Police officers beat Joe Morgan, the Hall of Fame baseball player and lead commentator on ESPN's Sunday night telecasts, after mistaking him for a drug dealer; on February 14, a court awarded him $540,000 in damages. A few days after that ruling, Jamaal Wilkes, the former Laker basketball star, was handcuffed and roughed up by the police because his car registration was about to expire. Other examples involving less prominent blacks and Latinos abound.
George Will calls Gates the "Eight-Million-Dollar Man": Last year, judges awarded $8 million in damages to victims of police brutality in Los Angeles. Local taxpayers picked up the tab. Thanks to generous civil-service rules, it's nearly impossible to fire Gates. And he told reporters on March 7, "I have absolutely no thoughts of resigning." In fact, he wants to run for mayor.
Reports of excessive force by law enforcement officers—not just those in the LAPD—appear in the newspapers almost daily. On March 10, while trying to break up a domestic dispute involving two unarmed Samoan brothers, a Compton police officer shot and killed them. The coroner's report said the officer shot his targets 20 times altogether—one man received eight slugs in the back, the other took five.
After the King case broke, the Santa Ana police chief, a former LAPD deputy chief, and a Cal State-Fullerton criminologist defended the LAPD in the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times. They said the case was atypical and that a few bad apples shouldn't spoil the bunch.
But there's no way to tell how unusual these incidents are. We pay attention when a sports hero gets roughed up or when a video camera films a beating. What happens during, the thousands of routine interactions between the police and average folks? A letter writer in the Times, who is black, said he and some friends were "stopped, roughed up, handcuffed and ankle-cuffed and detained for two hours while walking back to my car after a late show in Westwood." Even if a few officers cause all the trouble, what is Gates doing to get rid of them?
Several pundits have come to Gates's defense. Llewellyn Rockwell, president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, defended the police action because, he said, ex-cons like King have it coming. Our streets were safer when cops could rough up the accused at the station house. Put the fear of God in 'em. The issue for Rockwell is "safe streets versus urban terror."
Rockwell's argument is unconscionable, especially coming from a self-described libertarian. It seems unlikely that the officers who arrested King were aware of his criminal record at the time; even if they were, King had paid his debt to society. Suspected criminals, even "excons," don't lose their due-process rights the instant police officers apprehend them. King also doesn't fit the profile of a common thug: He is married; he has two children and a job. And how does random violence against accused speeders square with the libertarian principle of innocent until proven guilty?
The issue is indeed safety versus terror. But in Los Angeles, the police cause much of the terror themselves. At some point, the chief of police has to take responsibility for the actions of his officers. Otherwise the police no longer serve and protect—they become another malevolent force in a lawless city. Their specific pattern of violence against minorities inspires resentment of law enforcement officials and terrorizes all Angelenos, most of whom obey the law. As George Will said, "It's time for Mr. Gates to go."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "L.A., Lawless".